Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars
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Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars

Freetown, Western Area, Sierra Leone | INDIE

Freetown, Western Area, Sierra Leone | INDIE
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The Refugee All Stars are survivors. Escaping from the horrors of civil war in Sierra Leone, they fled to a refugee camp across the border in Guinea, but here they were attacked once again and forced to move on. They formed a band to raise their morale, and became internationally known, thanks to an award-winning documentary about their remarkable history. Their first album, six years ago, was an uplifting affair but was followed by a sadly sub-standard London concert that suggested they might enjoy only brief success in the west. But they kept going, and developed a style that matches cheerfully upbeat reggae with lilting African guitar pop, chanting, percussive traditional styles, and multilingual social comment. This new album was mostly recorded in Freetown, Sierra Leone and in New Orleans, where local musicians added brass and harmonica to the Refugees' guitars and harmony singing on the reggae morality tales, Global Threat and Gbrr Mani (Trouble). Even more encouraging are the traditional Bute Vange, recorded at a festival in Japan, and the acoustic reggae of Watching All Your Ways, recorded around a campfire in Canada, which suggest that this much-travelled band are now far more impressive playing live. - The Guardian

BBC Review

Their music emanates a life-affirming positivity.

Jon Lusk 2010-04-20

They say every cloud has a silver lining, and if any good came out of the appalling civil war that devastated their country between 1991 and 2002, it must be Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars. It’s thought that around a third of the population fled as a result of the conflict, with many settling for years in refugee camps in neighbouring Guinea, which is where this band had its genesis.
Arriving six years after their debut album, Living Like a Refugee, Rise & Shine finds the group moving from describing what life is like for a refugee to getting on with rebuilding their lives, and directing their gaze towards more general concerns, judging by their lyrics. Thus, Global Threat addresses climate change, disarmament and food shortages, while Goat Smoke Pipe is a sly allegory about post-war corruption and inequality in Sierra Leone. And there are love songs, such as Muloma and the lovely, skanking Bend Down the Corner.
As before, a loose-limbed, semi-acoustic take on roots reggae is their default setting, but the core eight-member group (not counting ‘band mother’ Sister Grace) has several talented songwriters aside from spokesman Reuben M Koroma, which makes for a pleasing array of other styles. Gbrr Mani toys with ragga and features a rap by the youthful Black Nature, while Tamagbondorsu is a Congolese-style soukous. Dununya has a distinctly Guinean feel, and local indigenous roots styles are showcased on Bute Vange and Oruwiebie/Magazine Bobo, the latter “a blend of ‘secret society’ meeting song and spiritual incantations”, powered by the rustic plunking of a kongoma (giant thumb piano).
Three tracks feature the welcome addition of The Bonerama Horns, and there are contrasting harmonica cameos by guest Chris Velan (Bend Down the Corner) and Mohammed Bangura (Oruwiebe/Magazine Bobo), who plays with one hand, having been ‘amputated’ by thugs during the war.
Despite all the hellish things the group’s members have been through, their music emanates a life-affirming positivity. Producer Steve Berlin deftly mixes rough-and-ready studio and field recordings, punctuating the songs with atmospheric snippets of insect and frog calls, and there’s good sequencing and a variety of voices. It all adds up to a solidly engaging listen. - BBC Music

Band on the run
Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars
By BANNING EYRE | October 17, 2006

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In 2002, American filmmakers Zach Niles and Banker White were moving through the refugee camps of Guinea looking for musicians to help them dramatize the plight of Liberians and Sierra Leoneans who had fled civil wars back home. They hit paydirt when they came upon singer Reuben Koroma and guitarist Francis “Franco” Langba working out a plaintive reggae number called “Living like a Refugee.” In the film that resulted — The Refugee All Stars — Koroma and Langba build their collaboration into a punchy, electric band who tour the camps to entertain fellow refugees, return anxiously to Freetown to test the peace and record an album, then head back to the camps to encourage refugees to return home. That band, Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars, have come a long way in four years. They’re now in the US with a debut CD, Living like a Refugee (Anti-), on a tour that comes to the Paradise this Wednesday.

The arrival of the American filmmakers must have seemed miraculous, “something strange happening into our lives,” as Koroma puts it. Indeed, it was Niles and White who persuaded the band to return to Freetown. “We were so much reluctant to go back, owing to the kinds of things we saw,” Koroma admits, alluding to the killings and maimings that had been so common. But it was in Freetown that he reconnected with guitarist/singer Ashade Pearce and other musicians he had worked with before the war, musicians who completed the Refugee All Stars line-up.

Living like a Refugee is actually a compilation that brings together 17 tracks recorded over several years, from the earliest acoustic tracks made by Niles and White in the camps to more polished studio productions done in Freetown in 2003 and 2004. The Koroma/Langba connection goes back to 1998 in the Kalia camp. “I had nothing to do,” Koroma recalls. “I saw that many people were not happy, and I thought, ‘If I start to play music here, people will really feel well.’ ” The duo’s warm vocal harmonies are a highlight. And there’s an urgency in “Compliments for the Peace” and “Monkey Work” that echoes early Wailers tracks. But it would be a mistake to label this reggae. As Koroma points out, Sierra Leone’s own playful baskeda folk music is close to reggae in sound and spirit. “Anytime something is not good for the community, people will make a song of it, and when they are playing the baskeda, they will sing it. If the chief is very bad, they will sing against him, but the chief will not do anything because this is a social time. So people have the chance to speak, to express their grievances.”

There’s also palm wine, the freestyle, celebratory style associated with the local drink poyo; the signature lilt of the legendary palm-wine troubadour S.E. Rogie pervades a number of the songs. There are traces of gumbe, a style brought back from the Americas by slaves returning in the years after abolition; “Kele Mani (War Is Not Good)” is lively gumbe, animated by bottle and hand-drum percussion and an ancient-sounding acoustic guitar. “Pat Malonthone,” with its brooding, ritualistic feel and chant vocals, is an example of gbute vange, a music of the Mende people.

Read more: - The Providence Phoenix


Living Like a Refugee (2006)
Rise & Shine (2010)
Radio Salone (April 24, 2012)



Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars have risen like a phoenix out of the ashes of war and enflamed the passions of fans across the globe with their uplifting songs of hope, faith and joy. The band is a potent example of the redeeming power of music and the ability of the human spirit to persevere through unimaginable hardship and emerge with optimism intact. From their humble beginnings in West African refugee camps Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars have performed on some of the world’s most prestigious stages and matured into one of Africa’s top touring and recording bands.

Throughout the 1990s, the West African country of Sierra Leone was wracked with a bloody, horrifying war that forced millions to flee their homes. The musicians that would eventually form Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars are all originally from Freetown, and they were forced to leave the capital city at various times after violent rebel attacks. Most of those that left the country made their way into neighboring Guinea, some ending up in refugee camps and others struggling to fend for themselves in the capital city of Conakry.

Ruben Koroma and his wife Grace had left Sierra Leone in 1997 and found themselves in the Kalia refugee camp near the border with Sierra Leone. When it became clear they would not be heading back to their homeland anytime soon, they joined up with guitarist Francis John Langba (aka Franco), and bassist Idrissa Bangura (aka Mallam), other musicians in the camp whom they had known before the war, to entertain their fellow refugees. After a Canadian relief agency donated two beat up electric guitars, a single microphone and a meager sound system, Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars were born.

American filmmakers Zach Niles and Banker White encountered the band in the Sembakounya Camp, and were so inspired by their story they ended up following them for three years as they moved from camp to camp, bringing much needed joy to fellow refugees with their heartfelt performances. Eventually, the war in Sierra Leone came to an end, and over time the All Stars returned to Freetown, where they met other returning musicians who joined the band’s rotating membership. It was there in the tin-roofed shacks of Freetown’s ghettos that Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars recorded the tracks that ended up, along with unplugged recordings made in the refugee camps, being the basis for their debut album, Living Like a Refugee, which was released on the label Anti in 2006.

The resulting film that documented this moving saga, Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars, was a critical success, and introduced the world to the personalities and dramatic stories behind the band, not to mention their instantly appealing music. “As harrowing as these personal tales may be,” wrote The New York Times, “the music buoying them is uplifting.” Newsweek raved, “It’s as easy to fall in love with these guys as it was with the Buena Vista Social Club.”

The movie, album and eventual U.S. tours helped expand their following, and soon the band found itself playing in front of enraptured audiences of tens of thousands at New York’s Central Park SummerStage, Japan’s Fuji Rock Festival and the revered Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival. They appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show, contributed a song to the Blood Diamond film soundtrack, participated in the U2 tribute album In the Name of Love: Africa Celebrates U2, and earned praise and backing from Sir Paul McCartney, Keith Richards, Ice Cube, Angelina Jolie and others inspired by their life-affirming story and captivating music. In one of the most surreal moments of their climb to fame, Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars opened for Aerosmith at the 12,000-capacity Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Connecticut.

The senseless deaths and illnesses of friends and family, including some of the band’s original members, and the slimming hope for great change in their country as a result of peace, has only strengthened the resolve of Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars to do what they can to turn their country around. Their weapon in this struggle is music, and their message, while offering critique and condemnation of wrongdoing, remains positive and hopeful. Optimism in the face of obstacles, and the eternal hope for a better future motivates their lives and music.

“It’s been a long struggle out of the war, out of miserable conditions,” notes Koroma, “We try to bring out sensitive issues that are affecting the world. It is all of our responsibility that the masses are suffering. We bring our positive messages into the world so we can expect a positive change in the world. And, most importantly, bring about peace.”

For their second album, the members of the All Stars knew that they needed to prove to the world that they had the talent to produce an album that would rise above their unique story and stand on its own musical merits. After recording some songs and demos in Sierra Leone, the group went to New Orleans, Louis